The British Roots of the Conflict in Palestine

Yves here. This post on the backstory of how the then British empire rather ineptly dialed up then tried to cool hostilities between Jewish immigrants promised a homeland and the Palestine incumbents is oddly superficial. For instance, it omits one of the original sins, recounted short form in a detailed account of T.E. Lawrence in Smithsonian Magazine:

But Faisal’s [third son and battlefield commander of Emir Hussein, ruler of the Hejaz region of central Arabia] young liaison officer also harbored a guilty secret. From his time in Cairo, Lawrence was aware of the extravagant promises the British government had made to Hussein in order to raise the Arab Revolt: full independence for virtually the entire Arab world. What Lawrence also knew was that just months after cementing that deal with Hussein, Britain had entered into a secret compact with its chief ally in the war, France. Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the future independent Arab nation was to be relegated to the wastelands of Arabia, while all the regions of value—Iraq, greater Syria—were to be allocated to the imperial spheres of Britain and France. As Lawrence recruited ever more tribes to the cause of future Arab independence, he became increasingly conscience-stricken by the “dead letter” promises he was making, and finally reached a breaking point. His first act of sedition—and by most any standards, a treasonous one—was to inform Faisal of the existence of Sykes-Picot….

With the war in Europe drawing to a close, he hurried to London to begin lining up support for the Arab cause at the upcoming Paris Peace Conference. Acting as Faisal’s personal agent, he frantically lobbied prime ministers and presidents to uphold the promises made to the Arabs and to prevent a peace imposed along the lines laid out in Sykes-Picot. By that scheme, “Greater” Syria was to be divided into four political entities—Palestine, Transjordan, Lebanon and Syria—with the British taking the first two, the French the latter. As for Iraq, Britain had planned to annex only the oil-rich southern section, but with more oil discovered in the north, they now wanted the whole thing.

Lawrence sought allies wherever he could find them. Surely the most remarkable was Chaim Weizmann, head of the English Zionist Federation. In January 1919, on the eve of the peace conference, Lawrence had engineered an agreement between Faisal and Weizmann. In return for Zionist support of a Faisal-led Syria, Faisal would support increased Jewish emigration into Palestine, tacitly recognizing a future Jewish state in the region. The pact was soon scuttled by the French.

But the most poignant what-might-have-been involved the Americans. Suspicious of the imperialist schemes of his European partners in Paris, President Woodrow Wilson sent a fact-finding commission to the Middle East. For three months, the King-Crane Commission toured Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, and what they heard was unequivocal: The vast majority of every ethnic and religious group wanted independence or, barring that, American administration. Wilson, however, had far more interest in telling other nations how they should behave than in adding to American responsibilities. When the commission returned to Paris with its inconvenient finding, the report was simply locked away in a vault.

Lawrence’s efforts produced a cruel irony. At the same time that he was becoming a matinee idol in Britain, courtesy of a fanciful lecture show of his exploits delivered by American journalist Lowell Thomas, he was increasingly regarded by senior British officials as the enemy within, the malcontent who stood in the way of victorious Britain and France dividing the spoils of war. In the end, the obstreperous lieutenant colonel was effectively barred from the peace conference and prevented any further contact with Faisal. That accomplished, the path to imperial concord—and betrayal—was clear.

The repercussions were swift in coming. Within the year, most all of the Middle East was aflame as the Arab world, enraged at seeing their Ottoman masters replaced by European ones, rebelled. Lawrence was particularly prescient about Iraq. In 1919, he had predicted full-scale revolt against British rule there by March 1920—“If we don’t mend our ways.” The result of the uprising in May 1920 was some 10,000 dead, including 1,000 British soldiers and administrators.

Tasked to clean up the debacle was the new British Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, who turned for help to the man whose warnings had been spurned: T.E. Lawrence. At the Cairo Conference in 1921, Lawrence helped to redress some of the wrongs. In the near future, Faisal, deposed by the French in Syria, would be placed on a new throne in British-controlled Iraq. Out of the British buffer state of Transjordan, the nation of Jordan would be created, with Faisal’s brother, Abdullah, at its head.

Gone forever, though, was the notion of a unified Arab nation. Vanished also was Lawrence’s spirit for the fight, or desire for leadership.

And the Stern Gang, where Jews settling in Israel formed an explicitly terrorist group to turn on their British overlords and Palestinians. From Wikipedia:

It was initially called the National Military Organization in Israel, upon being founded in August 1940, but was renamed Lehi one month later. The group referred to its members as terrorists and admitted to having carried out terrorist attacks.

Lehi split from the Irgun militant group in 1940 in order to continue fighting the British during World War II. It initially sought an alliance with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Believing that Nazi Germany was a lesser enemy of the Jews than Britain, Lehi twice attempted to form an alliance with the Nazis, proposing a Jewish state based on “nationalist and totalitarian principles, and linked to the German Reich by an alliance”. After Stern’s death in 1942, the new leadership of Lehi began to move towards support for Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union and the ideology of National Bolshevism, which was considered an amalgam of both right and left. Regarding themselves as “revolutionary Socialists”, the new Lehi developed a highly original ideology combining an “almost mystical” belief in Greater Israel with support for the Arab liberation struggle. This sophisticated ideology failed to gain public support and Lehi fared poorly in the first Israeli elections.

In April of 1948, Lehi and the Irgun were jointly responsible for the massacre in Deir Yassin of at least 107 Palestinian Arab villagers, including women and children. Lehi assassinated Lord Moyne, British Minister Resident in the Middle East, and made many other attacks on the British in Palestine. On 29 May 1948, the government of Israel, having inducted its activist members into the Israel Defense Forces, formally disbanded Lehi, though some of its members carried out one more terrorist act, the assassination of Folke Bernadotte some months later, an act condemned by Bernadotte’s replacement as mediator, Ralph Bunche. After the assassination, the new Israeli government declared Lehi a terrorist organization, arresting some 200 members and convicting some of the leaders. Just before the first Israeli elections in January 1949, a general amnesty to Lehi members was granted by the government. In 1980, Israel instituted a military decoration, an “award for activity in the struggle for the establishment of Israel”, the Lehi ribbon.[30] Former Lehi leader Yitzhak Shamir became Prime Minister of Israel in 1983.

I am sure readers can fill in more important details.

By Saurav Sarkar,  a freelance movement writer, editor, and activist living in Long Island, New York. They have also lived in New York City, New Delhi, London, and Washington, D.C. Follow them on Twitter @sauravthewriter and at Produced by Globetrotter

Israeli flags are flying over all government buildings in the United Kingdom currently, but this isn’t the first time the former imperial hegemon has put its weight behind Zionism. In 1917, the British government issued the infamous Balfour Declaration.

This brief document—67 words—was a turning point in modern Palestinian history. It committed Great Britain to establishing a “national home” for Jewish people in Palestine. (The initial language promised a “Jewish state,” but was changed later.) The Balfour Declaration contained language that was meant to safeguard Palestinians, but we have seen how that has played out in the ensuing century.

From World War I to 1948, the British ruled Palestine, the bulk of that time under a mandate issued by the League of Nations. The population of Jewish settlers in Palestine increased over these decades—particularly the 1930s—as the British government fostered their immigration. In 1922, only 11 percent of the population in the region was Jewish. By 1931, the figure was up to about 17 percent. By 1939, it was almost 30 percent.

At that point, the British government sought to limit any further expansion of the Jewish population in order to ensure stability in the region. But by then, it was too late—the facts on the ground had changed. What had been a region that was almost 90 percent Palestinian had become a contested land between two demographically numerous groups. Moreover, the British had confiscated land from Palestinians to hand it over to Jewish people and engaged in violent repression of incipient Palestinian nationalism. And in the 1930s, a British government commission recommended that Palestine be partitioned, laying the groundwork for the failed “two-state solution.”

In other words, this conflict is the product of specific imperial policies that were practiced in the first half of the 20th century to foster a colonial project. The “Jewish question”—Europe’s longstanding inability to adequately address its own antisemitism—was made into Palestinians’ Zionist problem by the British Empire.

One of the key features of British rule was to play different groups against each other. One of the key methods adopted by them over the course of centuries and a global collection of provinces was to study the social history of their subjects to manage the politics and play different groups against each other.

The support for Jewish migration to Palestine triggered resentment and mobilization by Indigenous Palestinians, eventually leading to the Great Revolt of 1936-1939. The revolt, which included a general strike and peasant uprising, was violently repressed by the British government in collaboration with Zionist paramilitaries. However, after the revolt, the British began to limit further Jewish immigration to the region, turning against the group they had supported in order to protect their imperial interests. This led to violent attacks by Zionists in Palestine.

Palestine is not alone in this fate. In region after region, the British used strategies of “divide and rule” to pit one people against another for the benefit of the empire. In British India, they pushed the Hindu-Muslim divide, sometimes favoring one population, sometimes the other. In Cyprus, they pitted the Greeks against the Turks. In Sri Lanka, it was the Tamils against the Sinhalese. In Ireland, it was the Catholics against the Protestants. The list goes on.

In all of these places, the supposedly “ancient” politics of intergroup conflict have persisted beyond when the sun set on the British Empire. There have been territorial divides based on ethnicity and/or religion. British India became India and Pakistan. Pakistan was then further subdivided into Pakistan and Bangladesh. Ireland was split up into the Republic of Ireland and the UK’s Northern Ireland. Cyprus is divided in two, and its legal status is still unresolved. In Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lanka, a 30-year civil war waged to establish a Tamil state, which ended in 2009 in a similar fashion to what we are witnessing in Gaza today. And in 1948, Palestine was formally partitioned, establishing a Zionist state and what was meant to be a Palestinian one, with the blessing of the former British rulers who oversaw the beginning of the Nakba.

Each of these places has been marked with violent conflict based on “ancient” hatreds that can be traced to the last one or two centuries. It is this commonality that firmly establishes that the British Empire policies are the root cause of the violence in these regions; there are simply too many instances of these conflicts being traced back to the empire to imagine a coincidence.

While the proximate causes of Israeli apartheid, occupation, and genocide clearly lie squarely at the feet of Israel and its chief sponsor the United States, the United Kingdom has a special responsibility to make right its historical sins in Palestine—and everywhere else. A minimal first step would be to work to stop the current genocide instead of waving an Israeli flag. But this—let alone reparations—does not seem to be on the table.

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  1. bob

    If I am not mistaken that Israelites were the original indigenous population. He was dispersed around the world in the first Century AD by the Romans.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      Then you would be mistaken by both archaeology and scripture. You might try reading the scriptures you are claiming as a source of your views.

      When you say Israelite, do you mean the speculative United Kingdoms (the supposed King David) or are you purposely excluding Judeans?

    2. NotTimothyGeithner

      Also, it’s amusing you use the term Israelite in referencing the population in the first century AD during the era of Pharisees, the forerunners of what we consider Rabbinical Judaism, and the Sadducees. Jews would have been the widely used term, probably after exiled Judean elites who returned but maintained contacts as part of the Persian Empire.

    3. Colin K Ng

      The Canaanites were there before Moses led the ancient Hebrews to the Promised land (Israel) and pushed out the Canaanites with claims that God gave them the land.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        And even that may be mostly mythological.

        I remember reading a great article discussing the origins of the Hebrew people, I think it was in Harper’s. It might have been this one, but that link discusses mostly archaeological evidence, or lack thereof, and doesn’t get much into etymology, which I believe the article I’m thinking of did. But it was a long time ago that I read it.

        Anyway, my recollection of the theory I’m thinking of was that it considered the still unsolved issue of what exactly happened in the Mediterranean world circa 1200 BC. There is a ton or archaeological evidence that any number of large civilizations were destroyed around that time. If I remember correctly the theory posited that several different groups of refugees from whatever caused the destruction took up residence near where the Canaanites, who do have an archaeological record of a distinct people, lived. Gradually they coalesced into a coherent society that merged with rather than replaced the Canaanites. Centuries later, the “history” was written down, those bands of refugees became the twelve tribes of Israel, and Mos-es (with his very Egyptian sounding suffix), became the ostensible founder.

        1. TimH

          It’s pretty much a red herring to argue which group occupied the current Israel in good ol’ times. Unless the argument follows that USA, Oz, NZ, Canada will return land to indigenous peoples.

          1. lyman alpha blob

            Indeed. Nobody will ever know for sure, which is one of the reasons I decided not to pursue a career in the social “science” of archaeology. Interesting to ponder though and it’s a lot like the concept of a species – where exactly do you draw the line?

            Go back far enough, and we’re all mutts, aren’t we?

            1. Synoia

              Drawing the line depends on who has a paintbrush and paint.

              A better question might be Why is there so much intolerance?

          2. vao

            Didn’t the Italian fascists put forth the argument that they were entitled to rule over Libya, since the Romans had occupied the country before the Arabs came to it to propagate Islam?

            1. TimH

              I wonder why the British love the royal family so much since it is more French, Dutch & German than jolly old Anglo-Saxon. After all, the Normans invaded and won in 1066.

    4. Carolinian

      There have been some suggestions that the Palestinians are descendants of the original inhabitants and not the Europeans who came in the 20th century. And while my Sunday School time is a bit vague didn’t Moses and his people throw out the inhabitants even back then? “Indigenous” is a very slippery concept.

      Not that any of this–which seems to have very little archeological support–should matter. Or at least it shouldn’t matter to a state (ours!) where religion and state are supposed to be separate entities. The Founders knew their history and knew about all the blood that had been spilled over “God’s on our side.”

    5. Colin

      Actually the Canaanites were there in the land of milk and honey before the Hebrews were led there by Moses who claimed that God gave them the land.

      1. flora

        Jeez, I know, right..? It’s so hard to know who has primacy, who I should cheer for. / this is my effort at satire, in case anyone missed it. Here’s a comedian’s take. No offense meant to those who have a different view. utube. ~6 minutes.

        Actor Not Sure if He’s Supposed to Support Israel or Palestine

      2. Reply

        New cocktail naming opportunity?

        +milk and honey blended over ice

        +or in a latte

        +or some other concoction

      3. scott s.

        Well, if the biblical account in Joshua is accepted Joshua led the Hebrews into land west of the Jordan , except for Reuben, Gad, and half-tribe of Manasseh. The inhabitants west of the Jordan are referred to as “Hitites”. In the following periods up to creation of a kingdom there are recorded continuing wars and in some cases assimilation of non-Hebrews, so the general population of the geography seems varied. But by the time of the kingdom and King David ca 1000 BC it seems a people referred to as “Philistines” who I guess were inhabitants of coastal geography were a major source of conflict. Of course due to King Solomon’s disobedience the kingdom was divided into Judah to the south and Israel to the north, each fighting the other from time to time as well other kingdoms in the general area. This continuing until Assyria invaded and removed a large portion of Hebrews to Babylon.

    6. bob

      I have not read the Bible in over 60 years. My point is chasing who was there first is problematic. Are not they all Semites. One can blame the Babalonians, Assyrians, Romans, the armies of islam or the Ottomans among others for the chaos. England was just the most recent to cause chaos. So when I see the Palestinians claiming that it is their land, they were thrown off it and they are the indigenous people the argument loses all credibility. Deal with the reality that exists now and stopped talking about apartheid, occupation and right of return. You will only end up going in circles and prolonging the conflicts for ever. There was relative peace until Hamas attacked civilians, killing, torturing and taking hostages back to Gaza.

      1. nippersdad

        “There was relative peace until Hamas attacked civilians, killing, torturing and taking hostages back to Gaza.”

        Dude, really? If you cannot manage a rudimentary knowledge of even the last hundred years then I fail to understand why you would want to bring up obscure events in the Bronze Age. You might start with the Nakba and then work your way forward. There is a reason that Iran does not have these problems in spite of having the second largest population of Jews in the ME. It would behoove you to find out what that is.

      2. Donald

        Right, deal with the reality that exists now and don’t talk about apartheid, which exists now.

        Maybe people here want to know my views on the molecular biology of the Covid virus. I don’t know anything about it, but maybe they want my views anyway.

    7. clarky90

      Some humans identify as being members of various “Lost tribes” …… Often there are monetary/social advantages to one identity over another. Elizabeth Warren is, obviously, of mostly European descent, rather than Native American. But being Native American worked for her. However, a few hundred years prior, being an indigenous American would get you killed.

      In 70 AD, the Second Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans…..

      ALL of the Hebrew genealogy records (from The Creation ….. up until 70 AD), that were, all, stored in The Second Temple, were also completely destroyed by fire.

      The slate was wiped clean.

      (Also destroyed in 70 AD…. the Sacred Alter, for blood sacrifices of bulls, lambs, doves….)

  2. Mikel

    As far as Britain and more modern Europe involvement in the matter is concerned, didn’t Napoleon also hint at making Palestine a Jewish homeland? Around 1799 or so?

    Anyway, this documentary makes the claim that British strategies for the area pre-dated WWI:
    Al-Nakba: The Palestinian catastrophe – Episode 1 | Featured Documentary

    1. jsn

      Yves prologue re T. E. Lawrence leaves me wondering if motorcycles weren’t the early Anglophone intelligence services version of the small aircraft.

  3. flora

    Thanks for this post.
    I left this comment in yesterday’s Water Cooler. It seem appropriate to add here. Touchs on T.E. Lawrence and the WWI promises made by the British.

    This video starts with the Balfour Declaration. Historical film footage. Video was made 5 months ago, before the recent events. utube. ~ 14 minutes.

    How Israel was created.

  4. ciroc

    How does London view the bombing of the King David Hotel? Is it part of the struggle for independence or just a despicable act of terrorism?

    1. Synoia

      I was told a despicable act of terrorism. However my father who was in Israel in WW 11 as a British Soldier, and had strong opinions. He also discussed the Ergan and Haganar,

  5. Louis Fyne

    For all the contemporary European Establishment sanctimony about being the harbor of Enlightenment values and sneering at American yokelism, it’s the Europeans who were patient zero in nearly every major modern geopolitical problem: whether in the Mideast, colonial borders imposed in Africa, the legacy of the imperial Spanish caste system in Latin America.

  6. Maurice

    Thanks for this illuminating article.

    The former British Empire may have lasted two hundred years only, but its policies have plagued the world a lot more than the Romans, who at least tried to incorporate subjected peoples among its ranks.

    By contrast, the British Empire would use impoverished people somewhere against other impoverished people elsewhere. And subsequent generations inherited the resulting mess. The post rightly cites Northern Ireland. As far as the Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian-Arab situation is concerned, one wonders how many centuries will be necessary to finally find an exit. And then what form of exit will it be? In Spain, the Arabs were expelled after five centuries of domination, in horrible conditions. Let us hope that this time, it will be better. Some South African solution, maybe?

    1. JonnyJames

      I take your point, but the Romans are not really a model to emulate: they basically came in and killed or enslaved anyone who opposed them, stole all the gold/silver and treasure they could get their hands on and imposed tribute. Mass theft, based on brute violence, seems to be the common thread of human history.

  7. Aurelien

    Oh dear, it’s always depressingly amusing to see the professed anti-colonialists so eager to deny little brown men any agency in their own affairs. But is predictable, at a moment when western influence over events in this region of the world is steadily slipping away. If we can’t influence (or even understand) the present, at least we can find someone in the past to blame who has a name we can pronounce. I mentioned a few days ago that there’s an extensive literature on this subject (I even gave a couple of examples as I recall) which in recent years has started to restore local actors to their proper importance, and to severely qualify the old, colonialist, idea that only decisions made by white people mattered.

    The problem was the Ottoman Empire, and many people, including me, would argue that we are still not done with the consequences of its break-up, and the impossibility of creating nation-states with agreed frontiers from the rubble. The Ottoman Empire was a kind of delayed action bomb, which was going to go off as soon as western ideas of democracy and national self-determination were introduced. It created problems to which there may be no actual solution, other than force, which, of course, was how the Empire was created in the first place, and how it survived. In the case of the Levant, whatever western-educated elites may have dreamed of, any attempt to create states out of nothing would have produced bloodshed on an epic scale. The British, like other powers, had their objectives, which mainly consisted of safeguarding the route to India, as well as having access to oil supplies. That was how things were in those days.

    Oh, and the British pitted the Catholics against the Protestants to “divide and rule?” I haven’t heard that one since the days of the dour hard-line Stalinists of the 1970s.

    1. Carolinian

      But we don’t live in those days any more. John Kenneth Galbraith once said that William F. Buckley was “the finest mind of the 18th century” and the Israelis and their Balfour boosters are the finest minds of the 19th century which, if I’m not wrong, also sported lots of international slave trading. This “oh you did it to the Native Americans” line isn’t much of a defense in the 21st.

      As for the UK, yes the past is the past and we accept that if they would just stop trying to meddle in the present. Many would say the days of Empire are not something to look at with pride. The defense that they had to maintain access to that other much bigger colony only makes things worse.

    2. flora

      I sometimes think we are still fighting the geopolitical fallout from WWI.

      Empires do what empires do. This is just history. During WWII it was clear the US was going to pick up the mantle of empire from the UK, FDR made that clear in recorded conversations with other western leaders. When the British mandate ended the US was there to help keep the situation then as it’s become today. Part of what was once called The Great Game in the ME and central Asia.

      I suppose the question is how can the slaughter be ended, or reduced, or calmed, regardless of historical claims. Seeing politics in terms of the Hatfields vs the McCoys, (American reference), solves nothing and the killing of children continues. / my 2 cents

      1. Carolinian

        Per Helmer we now know that FDR talked out of both sides of his mouth and while Henry Wallace, his former VP, told Truman that “supporting colonialism has not been our policy” Roosevelt at Bitter Lake tried to get the Arabs to give Palestine to the Zionists for “sentimental reasons.” The Palestinians he suggested could be settled in Saudi and some millions were offered to pay for the deal. The Saudis said no and why not settle them in Germany instead and take away land from former Nazis. Good question?

        Or we Americans should have taken them although I think Congress blocked that one.

        FDR was a great man but Gore Vidal, whose father worked for Roosevelt, always said Roosevelt was downright sneaky–didn’t care for him.

    3. nippersdad

      Thank you for that long form sneer.

      The Ottoman Empire had many problems, granted, but we can only take responsibility for that which we were directly involved in. Under the Ottomans one did not see this kind of ongoing strife; they were largely accepted by its’ diverse populations as the rulers of the Arab world in a way that has not been seen since the Balfour Declaration. They accepted the melting pot they had, insofar as largely tribal societies ever could, and it worked for them for a very long time.

      Yes, attempts to create individual states from the corpse we made of the “Sick man of Europe” would have involved quite a bit of bloodshed, that is why T.E. Lawrence was lobbying for a pan Arab state, but the subsequent responsibility for it would not have lain at our door (a truism with great currency at the time) nor would it have been so ongoing. They should have been allowed to sort themselves out, but they were not, and as I understand it that is the point that is being made here.

        1. nippersdad

          Your point?

          I think you will find that the ME was a lot more peaceful prior to European interference in the Ottoman Empire. Your Wiki reference pretty much shows the Euro/Turkish interface, not internal problems.

          The reason that the House of Saud was empowered by the British was because they were the upstarts; even then Wahabism was considered a poison elsewhere within the Empire. Fast forward and you will find that AQ was created out of the House of Saud for the same reason, and for largely the same ends.

          You might want to be a little more granular in your analysis.

    4. Alan Roxdale

      The problem was the Ottoman Empire, and many people, including me, would argue that we are still not done with the consequences of its break-up, and the impossibility of creating nation-states with agreed frontiers from the rubble.

      So, you’d also say that a similar breakup of the extant Russian empire should be avoided?

      1. hk

        In 1917 or 1991? Both of them did result in a lot of turmoil and bloodshed, one should note, which are still ongoing.

    5. pjay

      “Oh dear, it’s always depressingly amusing to see the professed anti-colonialists so eager to deny little brown men any agency in their own affairs.”

      There’s that straw man again: denying the indigenous population “agency.” Aarrgh! So are you saying the British did *not* play a major role in this historical saga? Or that they did *not* play “divide-and-rule” games in the Middle East during this period? Once again, it is not necessary to to deny a people their own history, to deny the history of their own ethnic conflicts, or deny them their “agency,” to acknowledge that the Europeans often *utilized* these preexisting conflicts and histories precisely to divide-and-rule. You say that “The problem was the Ottoman Empire, and many people, including me, would argue that we are still not done with the consequences of its break-up, and the impossibility of creating nation-states with agreed frontiers from the rubble.” So, where does Sykes-Pecot and its aftermath fit in? Certainly this was a “decision made by white people” with considerable historical consequences. As were British actions under their Mandate in Palestine. I assume you would agree. So why question those who discuss these central and well-known actions by Western imperialist powers by accusing them of ethnocentric “denial of agency.”? Whose “agency” is being denied here, in what way, or what history is being distorted? I am not understanding your point in making this charge.

    6. Jeff W

      “I mentioned a few days ago that there’s an extensive literature on this subject (I even gave a couple of examples as I recall)…”

      That comment is here.

    7. ArvidMartensen

      The passive tense is sure getting a workout in this comment.

      Bit confused by ‘western ideas of democracy and national self-determination were introduced’. Was there a seminar run by Oxbridge, given to the local people? Did they have discussions in the local papers of the pros and cons of democracy and self-determination? A mystery to be sure……

    8. Jams O'Donnell

      “The British, like other powers, had their objectives” – which were mostly about extracting as much revenue from its colonies as possible. Even remote and tiny Pacific islands had Copra and Guano. But in the course of these interests, almost any kind of atrocity was permitted, including looking on and making no attempt to ease starvation of millions in Ireland and India, and obscene torture of Kenyans during the May-Mau rebellion, murders of thousands (at least) Malayan communists etc. etc. etc. A complete list would take a number of pages.

  8. JonnyJames

    Thanks Yves for this important post. The history and context are always a must when trying to understand the issues. It’s a shame that most US dwellers are taught nothing about this. An ignorant, misinformed public will believe almost anything they are told.

    The Arabs were stabbed in the back several times by the British. Even in the classic film, Lawrence of Arabia, some of the betrayal was made clear.

    (Side note: Many people hold Churchill on a pedestal and believe he is a heroic figure. His hand was in a lot of dirty business as well in India, the Boer Wars in SA, Palestine etc. He was/is a complicated and polarizing figure: some believe he was rabidly racist, imperialist, elitist and had serious mental health and alcohol issues.)

    The Durand Line, Sykes Picot, and other imperial agreements drew the modern boundaries of the ME and South Asia, that had little to do with local preferences. The legacies (and crimes) of the British Empire will haunt us for a long time to come.

    Also, since the British installed the dynasties of Jordan, KSA and other modern states, how “legitimate” are they? Does the House of Saud represent the majority population of KSA? Do they have any historical legitimacy to rule the entire country?

    I guess it is no surprise that over a century later, the UK, and its oversized offspring, the US, continue to interfere and continue to throw more fuel onto the fire.

    1. Reply

      Once they acquired the taste of Empire, it became increasingly difficult to let that go.

      Source – me, and doubtless many others

      1. JonnyJames

        Yeah: No diminishing marginal utility to be found, it’s increasing marginal utility for silly humans. There is never enough money or power

    2. Kouros

      I think one forgotten line is the McMahon Line, which is the source of anymosity between China and India nowadays. The treaty that wasn’t a treaty at Shimla conference disregarded the Chinese saying NO, and presented all a thing between Tibet, which was vassal to the Qing and the Brits. All a sham, perpetuated by the Brits ever since.

      Badrakhumar, in a podcast with Giessen and Mercouris recognized that there never was a border agreement in the Tibet.

      Another missing thing is the interference of the Brits on the tentative peace settlement btw Russia and Ukrain in Spring 2022.

    3. elissa3

      The Brits did NOT install the Saud family in Arabia (notwithstanding St. John Philby as part of the entourage). Abdul Aziz bin Saud came from a tribe in the Nejd (interior part of Arabia) that had been battling another tribe, the al-Rashids for around 200 years. No major European power much cared for this part of Arabia until massive oil deposits were discovered post WWI. Abdul Aziz was a supremely gifted leader and conquered the Hejaz (Mecca, Medina, Red Sea coast) in the 1920s. He united Arabia with the sword and through tribal marriage alliances. He was, justifiably so, suspicious and fearful of the Brits, and so threw in his lot with the rising power, the USA. A kind of pact was made between him and FDR onboard the USS Quincy in 1945 around the time of Yalta. Oversimplification: some influence over the oil for security.

      This relationship, I would hesitate to call it an alliance, endured up until recently. (Some would argue that it was frayed when Faisal was king with the oil embargo post-October War, 1973; but then, Faisal was killed in March, 1975 and the relationship reverted back to the “norm”).

      All the more astonishing that Blinken was made to cool his heels overnight by MBS a few days ago. Admittedly, neither seem to be very bright, but the raw insult to a USA Secretary of State seems to indicate a new phase in the relationship.

      1. nippersdad

        I don’t think he was trying to say that the Brits “installed” the House of Saud in Arabia. Yes, they had been there for centuries, but they were not a particularly influential group until the Brits empowered them to be so. That is what T.E. Lawrence was out there doing; riling them up to revolt against the Ottomans.

        They did so not only because of the oil deposits discovered there, but also because they were strong men, and corrupt, power seeking strong men at that. They could be controlled, and that is what both the Brits and the US liked about them. Abdul Aziz was not a “supremely gifted leader” so much as he had the might and brains of the British Empire behind him in a backward and very poor area.

        It is not a coincidence that Saudis were proposed as kings of both Jordan and Iraq (areas not previously known for their religious fanaticism) in addition to what is now the KSA, just as it was not a coincidence that Saddam Hussein ultimately became the strong man in Iraq, supported by both the Brits and the US (until he wasn’t). There is a long history of that sort of thing across the ME, and a large part of the enmity that the West has for Iran can be directly traced to their throwing off of our puppet shah and replacing him with a group less amenable to Western manipulation.

        What is happening there is no surprise. Saudi Arabia is aware of the sunset of yet another empire, and is looking for a new set of coat tails to hang on to. Russia and China fit the bill, so Blinken gets to cool his heels and think about all that might have been.

        1. elissa3

          Sorry, but you have basic history of the area upside down. The Brits supported the Hashemites not the Saudi. The Hashemites, a line supposedly descended from the prophet Mohammed, ruled in the Hejaz until Abdul Aziz (bin Saud) drove them out. After that, the Brits installed the Hashemite sons of Hussein (“of Mecca”) as client kings in what became the nation states of Jordan and Iraq. In Iraq, the Hashemite line ended with the killing of the king in 1958. He was succeeded by what became the Baath (Renaissance) Party. King Abdullah II in Jordan is descended from the Hejazi Hashemite line.

          Maybe I should have used charismatic and intelligent for “supremely gifted”, but the fact is that Abdul Aziz bin Saud created a nation state that bears the name of his family–not a small achievement. A policy that displayed his cleverness is how he used the Wahabbi version of Islam to cement and maintain his power. By embracing this austere and uncompromising version of Islam, he also sought to establish himself as a legitimate guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. This was important because of the ancestry of the Hashemites, who Abdul Aziz portrayed as too cosmopolitain (in the classic sense).

          1. nippersdad

            I had to go back to my Gertrude Bell, but you are right that it was the Hashemites and not the Sauds that were supported by the British. My apologies. That said, I have a very low opinion of the Saudi ruling family. Their lack of “cosmopolitanism”, as you put it, lies at the root of so many problems we see today.

            Not that I can talk. Speaking as an American, we have our own sins that we need to atone for.

      2. JonnyJames

        I see your point, “installed” is an overstatement. Let’s just say British policy initially facilitated the rise of Saud.

        I agree: The new phase in US/Saudi relationship and KSA/Iran will be very important/interesting to watch going forward. We can just speculate how the US might react to a KSA that steps too far out of line.

  9. upstater

    I picked up “A Peace to End All Peace” by David Fromkin, a 1989 book. It is about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire 1914-22.

    What was amazing is Britain had a million troops deployed in MENA during WW1; no wonder why France and the UK desperately needed US participation in the bloodletting. The connivances of FUKUS during that time rhyme with those of today. Zionism was a tiny fringe movement until legitimized by the UK and blossomed after the Balfour Declaration. Sure, the Arabs had agency during that time, just like Native Americans had agency. They didn’t stand a chance of peace dealing with the western imperialists.

    The saddest part is Jews were part of urban culture throughout MENA and Persia for millenia and lived largely in peace, unlike in Europe where there was intense hatred (ie, “the Jews killed Jesus”). Islam was considerably more tolerant of Judaism and Christianity than vice-versa.

    So many roads of today, including Ukraine and Palestine, originated at Versailles.

    1. GramSci

      I don’t lay the blame so much at the doorstep of Versailles as at the mad dash for oil-money. Versailles triggered a horrendous Germany that lasted about 10 years. The Nakba (not to mention, e.g., Mossadegh or Operation Iraqi Liberty), has been going on for 75 years and is very much our current problem.

      Today’s woes began with Suez and went critical with the realization that petroleum would fuel the navies of the twentieth century. To my mind (and as Yves helpfully emphasizes in her headnote), it culminated with Sykes-Picot, Great Power spooks recruiting local gangs like Stern, Lehi, Faisal, (the Black Hand??) et al., and the San Remo Conference.

      Balfour is just one chapter, written in Hebrew, but widely-translated into English.

      1. nippersdad

        “…Great Power spooks recruiting local gangs like Stern, Lehi, Faisal, (the Black Hand??) et al.,…”

        Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose. The NED, et al, had good teachers.

        1. John

          Interesting discussion. seems to me that the blame cannons ought to aimed in all directions and at all players. Churchill did get his hands dirty … more than once. His wartime speeches also heartened Britain in 1940 or so I have always believed. FDR used the divide and rule principle among his own advisors. So did Lincoln. Oh … FDR was sneaky. Appears that all great leaders are willing to deal seconds if they think it necessary. Real politik is a b—h. Israel-Palestine looks like a Gordian Knot. The western politicians flocking to Israel are doing nothing to burnish their reputations for diplomacy but succeed admirably in smearing them with mud.

          If we are lucky the genie will be jammed back into the bottle or lamp and Armageddon will be averted once again … until next time. Have a nice, a really nice, day

  10. chris-gee

    Excellent and most helpful. Thanks. I recommend following the link to the revolt in the 30s. The current perfidity and stupidity are sickening. The US representative to the UN and others come to mind.

  11. JonnyJames

    A more “humane” and “sophisticated” way to steal land and ethnically cleanse the place is to do what the US empire did to the Kingdom of Hawai’i and continues to this day.

    Take the place over at gunpoint,
    Privatize the land, giving it away to cronies and large business interests
    Charge outrageous rents and prices to the indigenous and local population,
    Develop the area for rich haoles, speculators, and outsiders driving up prices to unaffordable levels
    Indigenous and locals forced to evacuate to cheap cost-of-living areas in the “mainland” (Like Vegas)

    The tragic fires in Lahaina have created more opportunity for real estate speculators, displacing more locals

    Voila! Hawai’i becomes a haole paradise for the very wealthy. Economic Ethnic Cleansing is quite effective as well. Larry Ellison owns the entire island of Lana’i, Oprah, Zuckerberg, and other oligarchs have bought up big tracts of land on the islands as well.

  12. Socal Rhino

    When it come to “root cause” arguments I find plausible the argument that the first domino to fall was the introduction of agriculture.

    Or blame that black monolith.

  13. Watt4Bob

    The following is an excerpt from a piece I wrote in June of 2010, but not much has changed except a growing awareness on the part of younger people, world-wide, that the Palestinian’s plight deserves considered attention, and that that consideration is made nearly impossible by the tsunami of propaganda we are now experiencing.

    From Shadowproof, formerly Firedoglake;

    If we’re ever to effectively address the issue of peace in the Middle East, we’re going to have to disabuse ourselves of the foolish notion that Israel somehow controls the governments of Britain and the United States.

    It would be more correct to say that the governments of Great Britain, and the USA, who for the purposes of this diary, I’ll refer to as the Anglo-American empire, control Israel.

    These governments control Israel; they just don’t control Israel any more than necessary.

    We’re going to have to face the reasons and the origins of this control; the fact that Israel functions as the Anglo-American empire’s proxy in the region.

    We’re going to have to face the fact that Israel does not exist solely because the Jews desired a homeland so as to be safe from the perennial ebb and flow of murderous European anti-Semitism, and so talked the freedom loving peoples of Great Britain and the USA into helping them realize their dream by granting them control of Palestine.

    Israel actually came into existence, in part, maybe for the most part, because what was then the British Empire, and now might well be called the Anglo-American empire required a proxy in the middle east to counter the forces that threaten their control of middle eastern oil resources so necessary to fuel the ships by which they have projected military power for over two hundred years.

    The USA and Britain decided over a hundred years ago to fuel the empire’s ships with oil rather than coal, and that led them to believe they would be prudent to do all they could to control the oil reserves of the ME.

    They’re still doing all they can, towards the same purpose.

    1. JonnyJames

      Back in the day, Walt and Mearsheimer explained a lot in their article and book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. Your points are also shared by others. Israel, in a way, is like a Zionist Crusader State for the empire. I’m not sure who originated it, but Israel has been likened to “an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the ME”

    2. GramSci

      Nice to read. Shadowproof/Firedoglake hasn’t been on my dance card for a while; maybe it’s time to go visit again.

      1. Watt4Bob

        I believe you’re right, MHO is “somewhat” at odds with their take.

        However, I believe the lobbying evolved over time, from simply lobbying for the approval of the partition of Palestine, and the recognition of Israel, to what today is lobbying both for compensation for the cost of defending the world’s biggest aircraft carrier, and recompense for the decades of hardship involved in being the ‘West’s’ foot-in-the-door/guard-dog.

        It was scheming on the part of Britain and the USA that betrayed the Arab world, and inflicted Israel on the ME, starting the problem.

        The current impossibility of “fixing” the problem may very well be rooted in the Israeli lobby machine.

        …and then there is the MIC.

  14. Freethinker

    History as taught in schools today in the UK is very one-eyed on the colonial era, such that people of all ages think it was on balance far from all bad & Churchill is mostly seen as a hero, few know of his Kissinger side.
    You regularly get stereotypical quips like ”Ok, there was some bad stuff, but we abolished slavery & built a lot of infrastructure”. A closer inspection would show slavery was stopped only after the UK’s elite had enriched themselves beyond their wildest dreams & most of the ‘business’ had been wrested away by other colonial powers by then. The lauded infrastructure was installed largely to extract the resources & other wealth of the newly conquered regions, or help in militarily holding strategic locations to secure the global empire/enterprise; suggestions of altruism are risible. The winner writes the history books any way they want.

    1. GramSci

      History, as taught on USian TV, is similarly one-eyed. There are moments in history, however, when the other eye opens. I sure hope this is one, cuz it’s about our last chance.

    2. Synoia

      Being English and traveled some all I can say is I agree, and point out that I personally did none of it.

      The Irish also seem to have bitter memories of English rule.I would note that my English History books were rather light on these memories.

      1. Freethinker

        That’s a good attitude & fair, it reminds me of an experience when I was a student in my 20’s, listening to an exchange between a couple of my peers, one Italian, one Ethiopian. The Ethiopian was clearly still bitter a couple of generations later about the curses invading Italians had blighted their lives with, Newcastle chicken disease, rinderpest & mustard gas if I remember correctly. The Italian was a bit shocked but knew about it to his credit, was honest & similarly said he would feel the same in the other guy’s shoes, but he didn’t do it, vote for it or benefit in any way. It’s sad how easy these things are to start, but so hard to heal – mainly because there’s most often no reparation or other form of justice.

        1. hk

          Certainly better than someone I knew in grad school (an ivy leaguer, incidentally) who insisted that there was no such thing as the American war in the Philippines….

  15. Matthew G. Saroff

    The British did this in India, as the author notes, and they did this in Sri Lanka, and to a lesser extent Fiji, literally importing Tamils to ethnically homogeneous societies to create ethnic tensions. (Also, they were indentured/slave labor, but I digress)

    The British nurtured ethnic division so that could rule more easily.

  16. kriptid

    Highly recommend reading “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” which is the title of T.E. Lawrence’s memoir and the primary source for the much-more-famous film “Lawrence of Arabia” with Peter O’Toole in the titular role.

    Mr. Lawrence was a deeply thoughtful man gifted in the art of prose with a heart much too big for the heartless task assigned to him by the British government.

    1. LifelongLib

      In “A Peace To End All Peace” T. E. Lawrence comes across as a more ambiguous figure than his Lawrence of Arabia persona. Recent history suggests that e.g. he knew a good deal about Britain’s plans for the Middle East, and that the “Arab Revolt” was not very effective militarily. He himself told Robert Graves (who was writing Lawrence’s biography) to be careful of some of what was written in the “Seven Pillars”. I agree The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is worth reading, but maybe more as literature than as history.

    2. np

      “It is odd that we don’t use poison gas on these occasions. Bombing the houses is a patchy way of getting the women and children…By gas attacks the whole population of offending districts could be wiped out neatly; and as a method of government it would be no more immoral than the present system.”

      T. E. Lawrence writing about “pacification” of the Arabs for The Observer in 1920, cited in Imperialism by Hannah Arendt (page 14 of the 1968 paperback edition, footnote 30).

      (Of course, “That was how things were in those days”, as NC’s resident sage “Aurelien” would no doubt add)

  17. Henry Jones

    It’s interesting that the Jews never get blamed for politicking the British to promise them an ill-defined “homeland” at the nadir of their fortunes in WWI, politicking the League of Nations to make this state primarily a Jewish homeland (the Jewish homeland, not the existing population, is the subject of Article 1 of the League of Nations mandate linked in the post!), immigrating en masse to this country administered by a British (who happened to be Jewish!) commissioner, politicking against the native inhabitants, and then complaining when the British – all for no pay (it was a “mandate” after all, not a colony, so the UK was not sovereign and had only limited rights to the land itself) tried to limit the conflict by going back somewhat on their admittedly vague promises.

    It doesn’t appear to me that Britain gained anything from this squalid affair or that it directly concerned British interests in the slightest, while a number of British servicemen were killed at much cost to the British treasury. The British were maneuvered into being the guarantor of somebody else’s colonization effort, they “ruled” – with many many caveats – for a very short period, and eventually were expelled with nothing to show for it. With hindsight, the best outcome for Britain would probably have been the survival of the Ottoman Empire!

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I have not had the chance to track this down, but one-time Jewish friend who was very loyal to Israel (our friendship ended after too many stony silences from me when she brought up Iran) volunteered that the Jews has been offered land in Turkey by Turkey and with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been way better to have accepted that proposal.

      1. Polar Socialist

        Then there’s the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in Soviet Union/Russia since 1928, though officially established in 1934.

        1. Matthew G. Saroff

          Official language in that Oblast were Yiddish and Russian, and Jews never constituted even a plurality of the population there.

          The cynic in me believes that it was really founded so that all the Jews in the USSR would have “Jewish” stamped on their internal passports without acknowledging the religion, exposing Jews to discrimination every time that they showed their identification.

      2. Carolinian

        The now gone Uri Avnery said the Zionists once had a serious plan to set up in Argentina! I think the point does need to be made that this movement–which many Jews thought was against their interests–pre dated Balfour. The rabid antisemitism of the Russians under Nicholas had a lot to do with it as well as Dreyfuss etc. And of course money had a lot to do with antisemitism which doesn’t get much attention. One motive for those once poor boy Nazis to go after the Jews was that they wanted their stuff.

        For some of us what Israel is doing now merely reflects the dark side of the human nature that we all share and should resist. “Exceptionalism” was not born with George W. Bush and his crew but has been the mantra for the powerful throughout history. Having the ability to step back is why we need someone other than the absurdly small man that is Joe Biden as president. The system, however, is set up to make sure we don’t get such a man or woman.

  18. PlutoniumKun

    Wikipedia has a useful list of some of the many proposals for Jewish homelands all over the world, bizarrely including a semi-serious one in Japan. Even Oliver Cromwell apparently considered the idea of one in England. And these don’t count all the settlements claimed at various times as being of the lost tribes of Israel (a particular favourite among Irish loyalists). I would never underestimate the power of the ‘Lost Tribes’ discourse among some Christians as contributing to the deep support of Israel in some unusual places.

    One not listed there, but I recall vaguely reading some years ago that in 1945 there were serious discussions about locating one somewhere in southern Germany. That, no doubt, would have been the fairest option.

  19. Susan the other

    So as I vaguely understand it, the word “civilizational” is an adjective that falls between global and ethnic and because we have nothing but friction between ethnicities and inequality among globalists, it is necessary to create an intermediate step in human politics, kind of like a sieve. Isolate the clumps of resistance, maybe use an emulsifier to better smooth it out. That does look to be the eastern antidote for western tactics of divide and conquer. I’d like to know what first made the Middle East the “Heartland” which became the “prize” and everything done since the Industrial Revolution has been focused on securing oil, aggressively, for a century. The use of oil is a dangerous addiction that precludes solutions because it allows us to be the most efficient and aggressive operators. And toxic. Which allows us to be even more existentially delusional than ethnic-religious rivals. It’s nice that some people are thinking outside this tattered old box.

  20. maray

    Any attempt to correct the historic discussion on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin (why a business site is allowed to fill itself with right wig war posting is another issue) is quickly deleted and the poster banned.
    Theodor Herzl should also be mentioned in the creation of modern Zionism. The creation of Isreal is unquestionably the result of Europe trying to deal with its ‘Jewish Problem’. Churchill dislkied/hated Arabs and Jews, believeing the former should be gassed and the latter were too powerful (as one Jewish commic quipped ‘we put our names on the banks’). There were three groups working to move Jews out of Europe:
    1 Anti semitic Europeans
    2. Zionists
    3. Europeans wanting a European foothold to aid in oil exploitation

    Just as 100 years ago, the global Jewish population is being controlled by a small group of oligarchs and politicians, forcing the narrative of the single Jewish entity that is seperate from the rest of humanity and it is this seperation that threatens their survival and peace because difference breeds mistrust and hatred.
    Rather than denouncing Palestinians, Jews must denounce their unelected unrepresentative global leadership

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